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Josh Johnson, the Ultimate Journeyman Quarterback, Had the Game of His Life

In Friday’s Hot Clicks: a career game for a perennial third-stringer, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s audacious dagger and more.

He’s been waiting a long time for this

If you’re watching an NFL game and you see Josh Johnson enter the game in your team’s uniform, you know something has gone terribly wrong. While guys like Chase Daniel and Chad Henne have made a good living as career backup quarterbacks, Johnson has managed to stick around for 14 years as a perennial third-stringer. If a team is looking for a reliable Plan C quarterback, Johnson is the guy.

Johnson has been under contract with a whopping 13 NFL teams (plus stints with three teams in the UFL, AAF and XFL). He started this season on the Jets’ practice squad (his second stint with the team after spending a week in training camp with them in 2015) and was elevated to the 53-man roster for last week’s game against the Bengals after Zach Wilson was injured, backing up Mike White. When White went down with a forearm injury early in Thursday night’s game against the Colts, it was Johnson’s time to shine.

Though the Jets got demolished in a blowout loss that wasn’t as close as the 45–30 final score would indicate (New York trailed 42–10 at one point), Johnson had the best game of his career. He completed 27 of 41 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns, setting career highs for completions, yardage and touchdowns.

The one blemish on his night was an interception thrown in the final minute that came on a pass that was tipped at the line.

Johnson was visibly upset that he was denied a chance to throw a fourth touchdown. And who could blame him? With White expected to be able to start the Jets’ next game, Johnson might have to wait a while to throw another pass.

Johnson has had one of the most remarkable NFL careers of my lifetime. After being selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft by the Buccaneers, he started five games for Tampa Bay over the course of three seasons. His career then followed the familiar path of a borderline NFL quarterback. He landed with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League in 2012 but made it back to the NFL and started bouncing around with different teams. Each stop is catalogued on his impressively exhaustive LinkedIn profile.

Seven years after his last NFL pass, Johnson started three games for Washington in 2018 (the year of Alex Smith’s catastrophic injury). His first action for the team came five days after he was signed, so he started playing Madden to learn who his teammates were.

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Johnson is one of eight players selected in the 2008 draft who is still in the NFL today. The list includes Henne, Joe Flacco and five former Pro Bowlers: Matt Ryan, Calais Campbell, Matthew Slater, Duane Brown and DeSean Jackson (who is a free agent after being cut by the Rams this week). And then there’s Johnson, who has played just 35 games in the NFL.

Ever since his brief run as the starter in Washington, I’ve wondered what it is about Johnson that makes him such a perfect third-string quarterback. Is he a genius when it comes to learning playbooks? Does his mobility afford him a certain margin of error that other quarterbacks don’t have? Or is he just willing to toil in obscurity when other guys would rather hang it up?

Whatever it is, he’s made a career out of doing a job that nobody ever really wants to have. But his outlook is different.

“I don’t really like it when people call me a ‘backup quarterback.’ That’s not how I see myself,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim in 2018. “No, I’m a quarterback. Same for ‘journeyman quarterback.’ Again, I’m a quarterback. I’m on a journey. But so is everyone. This is life, right? Not everyone is in the position to be as successful as they can be. Not everyone can be the star at their job. There are ups and downs in our careers and it’s how we handle it that matters. But when the opportunity comes, you have to be ready. That sounds like self-help, but it’s the truth.”

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A good song

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